A recent missile test by the U.S. Navy validated an innovative concept that will make upgrading the electronics and computer systems on older warships much, much easier.
The late March test saw the destroyer USS Thomas Hudner controlling its Aegis Combat System, including the launch of a missile, through a handful of computers in boxes small enough to “fit under a dining room table”.
The heart of the U.S. Navy’s shipboard defenses is the Aegis Combat System. Named after Zeus’ shield in Greek mythology, Aegis was designed to be “the shield of the fleet”, making it possible to defend carrier battle groups from mass attack by missiles and bombers. Designed in the 1970s, Aegis ties together the SPY-1 radar system and air defense missiles such as the Standard SM-2, SM-6, SM-3, and others to identify, track, and systematically shoot down up to hundreds of targets at a time.
The hardware used to run Aegis was large and took up a significant portion of the ship. , the military-grade computer, servers, consoles, and displays were so large that the Navy needed to cut holes in the hulls of ships when it needed to replace them. These systems also had a considerable electrical draw on the ship’s power supply, and required air conditioning—and more power—to keep them cool. Built to be large and rugged, these computers have also in many cases not been replaced for decades.
Meanwhile, outside the Navy Moore’s Law, which says constant improvements in miniaturization technology allows computing power to double every eighteen to twenty four months, has ruled computers in the civilian sector. Originally predicted by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, has reliably forecast smaller, more portable computers for the past fifty years, making your laptop orders of magnitude more powerful than one with the same dimensions produced just five years.
For March’s missile test USS Hudner ran its Aegis hardware from what the Navy calls a “virtual twin,” a handful of modern computers in ruggedized boxes. Just as your iMac running the Mac operating system computer can run virtualization software to emulate a Linux computer, the virtual twin completely emulates Aegis’ computer system and software but in a much smaller package. Moore’s Law allows these computers to replicate the physically much larger set of Aegis computers originally fitted to Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers built in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s.
How much hardware does a computer system that “fits under a dining room table” replace? Here’s a graphic from a thesis paper showing Aegis’ original computer network. The , prepared by Erik Roberts at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California in 2011, proposed replacing Aegis computers with virtualization software. It’s safe to say Roberts was onto something.
What does all this mean for the Navy? The use of virtualization will make upgrades to shipboard computers—particularly Aegis—easier and cheaper than ever before. While previously the Navy had to cut holes into its ships to remove and replace computers and other electronics, now the older computers can be disassembled to manageable pieces and then their replacements wheeled aboard without any cutting involved.
This would be particularly useful aboard submarines. Navies prefer not to cut submarine hulls as they are designed to hold against the pressures of the deep sea.
The U.S. Navy is trying to reach a goal of 355 ships by 2030, and one way to accomplish that goal is keeping older ships around. The use of virtualization hardware and software will make keeping older ships up to date cheaper and easier to accomplish than ever before. The use of smaller, more energy efficient computers will also free up space and excess power inside the ships for other uses.
Moore’s Law finally goes to sea.
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